When you think of Renaissance artists your mind fires off—Michaelangelo, Rafaelo, Frangelico. When you think of Renaissance woman artists you think maybe Artimissia Gentileschi. But here’s a woman painter who pioneered the way for teaching fine art to women—Sofonisba Anguissola. I saw her paintings of the Spanish Royal court as she was chosen by King Philip to be the official court painter and I was floored. Sofonisba Anguissola—say that name over and over until it sticks. She and Artimissia should come up as exemplary Renaissance artists the next time someone asks you the question, “Can you name five Rennaisance painters?”
Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532) was an Italian Renaissance painter born in Cremona to a relatively poor noble family. She received a well-rounded education that included the fine arts, and her apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. As a young woman, Anguissola traveled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talent, and to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. The Spanish queen, Elizabeth of Valois, was a keen amateur painter and in 1559 Anguissola was recruited to go to Madrid as her tutor, with the rank of lady-in-waiting. She later became an official court painter to the king, Philip II, and adapted her style to the more formal requirements of official portraits for the Spanish court. After the queen’s death, Philip helped arrange an aristocratic marriage for her. She moved to Sicily, and later Pisa and Genoa, where she continued to practice as a leading portrait painter.
Her most distinctive and attractive paintings are her portraits of herself and her family, which she painted before she moved to the Spanish court. In particular, her depictions of children were fresh and closely observed. At the Spanish court she painted formal state portraits in the prevailing official style, as one of the first, and most successful, of the relatively few female court painters. Later in her life she also painted religious subjects, although many of her religious paintings have been lost. In 1625, she died at age 93 in Palermo.